What’s the meaning of life? Seriously though.
I don’t think it’s love. Or happiness. It’s not 42. And to the nihilists out there, I also don’t think it’s “nothing.”
I really do think there’s a good answer to this question. The problem is that I don’t think it’s a good question in the first place.
When we ask “What’s the meaning of life?” we usually don’t understand what we’re really asking about. What do we actually want to know?
Do we want to know the meaning of your individual life? Of human life? Of all biological life? Or do we want to know the purpose of any one of those? Because asking about the purpose of life is a very different than asking about meaning of life.
What’s worse, we often confuse meaning and purpose with influence. It’s easy for some people to get a bit woeful because, as we recognize how large the universe is, we realize we’ll never have a significant influence on it.
But having influence or purpose isn’t the same as having meaning. They’re related, but they’re different. And that difference is important.
My point is, when we ask about the meaning of life, we’re often not very clear about what we want to know.
And yet, for as long as humanity has been around on this planet, we’ve been asking about the ultimate question and searched for its answer in one form or another:
We were asking it under the columns of the Parthenon, on mountaintops, on riverbanks, and while sitting under trees. We ask it in late night dorm-room conversations with friends, or we may ask it a decade later when we’re stuck in a job we hate, or we may ask it a few decades after that when, in the midst of our mid-life crisis, we stare blankly at our new red convertible and wonder if it’s large enough to fill the hole in our soul.
What is the meaning of all this? What’s the meaning of life? What’s the meaning of MY life?
It comes back again and again.
The main reason I think we have such a hard time with this question is because we’re looking for the answer in the wrong place. We’re looking for it in our thoughts, because we think the meaning of life is a piece of knowledge. But it’s not.
It isn’t something you can find written in an old book. (I think someone would have found it by now.)
It isn’t something a philosopher could just whisper in your ear. (That whisper would be heard around the world.)
I believe that’s because the meaning of life isn’t a piece of knowledge, it’s a feeling. It’s the feeling that our lives have meaning.
What we’re really asking for when we ask about the meaning of life—what we really want to know—is: “How do I FEEL like my life has meaning?”
Now that’s a good question.
Not only that, but there are many great answers.
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl lays out three major areas that give us a sense of meaning.
1) Doing a great deed or completing a great work
2) Experiencing someone or something amazing
3) Finding meaning in our suffering
We feel meaning when we create a great work of fiction or music, or contribute to a great cause like a country, a religion, or an ideology larger than ourselves.
We feel meaning when we do a great deed, like lift a struggling friend off the street and bring them into our home, or visit our ailing father on his hospital bed and finally forgive him.
We feel meaning when we experience the love of our lives or hold our first born child in our hands. And meaning can also be found in the years of suffering that come after, when you sacrifice blood and tears to raise that little monkey into a man or woman you can be proud of.
But why should any and all of these things bring us a sense of meaning?
Fundamentally, “meaning” in this context is anything that brings worth to our existence. It is any act, experience, or perspective that gives us the sense that existing is worthwhile.
Consequently, if we lack feelings of meaning, we may wonder if it’s worth existing at all. When Hamlet looks at the skull in his hand and says “To be or not to be,” he’s not asking whether something will or won’t happen. He’s saying: “To exist or not to exist?” That is his question.
When our search for meaning is successful, we feel our lives flushed with it. When the answer to Hamlet’s question is a resounding “YES,” we not only feel a sense of great happiness and satisfaction, we are also capable of coping with suffering—sometimes a lot of it.
But when we fail in our search for meaning, when we feel a hollow void where meaning ought to be, the answer to Hamlet’s question sinks from “Yes” to “probably not.” And then, when we are unable to cope with life’s endless ingenuity for suffering, our answer eventually arrives at “No.”
In the concentration camps, Frankl said that a common thing happened to people when they arrived at that final “No.”
One morning, they wouldn’t get out of bed. They would lay on straw covered in urine and feces and no amount of warning and threats would move them. Then they’d take out a cigarette from deep down in their pockets, which they’d protected for weeks, and start to smoke. Within 48 hours or so, they were dead.
Meaning is a fundamental necessity to human survival. Rather than a switch set to “Yes meaning” / “No meaning.” It’s more like the amount of wine in your glass. As your life fills with meaning, the glass fills until it’s overflowing—and you can drink of it, share it with others, endure life’s difficulties, and be merry.
But if you do not continuously replenish it, the level in the glass will fall. And if your glass ever goes dry—you’re in trouble.
We replenish our glass of meaning in the ways Frankl describes:
1) We can do great deeds, or complete great works.
This can be doing something that we are proud of, that’s in line with our values, that serves others, or that contributes to a mission or cause that’s greater than ourselves.
These actions often contribute to our Legacy. They make us worthy of remembrance, and if we do something truly worthwhile, people may write poems and sing songs about us, write long biographies, and hopefully make blockbuster films about our lives.
Or at the very least, our children and grandchildren will remember us with awe and wonder, the same way my sister and I remember our grandmother — who herself survived WWII and to this day is one of the great heroes of my life.
2) We can experience something or someone amazing.
This is where Love comes in. Love is when someone else looks at us with shining eyes—with deep acceptance of who we are. Whether it’s a mother or father’s love, the love of a partner, a friend, or a child, love deeply affirms our worth to exist. We feel this existential worth when we lose someone we love: we feel that no one in the world could replace them. When we feel loved ourselves, we understand that if we were lost, no one could replace us.
I think that’s why people often think love is the meaning of life, because genuine love is such an amazing source of worth.
While love is a way of experiencing someone amazing, we can also experience something amazing. This can be wonder, beauty, ecstasy, inspiration, joy, responsibility, or a host of other powerful experiences.
For this, you may not have to accomplish anything. You might simply find yourself walking in the woods, or under the desert stars at Burning Man, and through a combination of natural beauty, drugs, or both, you may experience yourself merge with Absolute existence and become One with the Unspeakable All.
In controlled psychedelic studies, participants regularly rank their experiences to be among the most meaningful of their lives. Even the “bad” trips become meaningful with time.
Which brings us to the third method of making meaning:
3) We can find meaning in our suffering.
This form of meaning-making may seem like the hardest to do, but it can also be the fastest. Because finding meaning in our suffering is simply about flipping our perspective.
Frankl tells the story about an elderly man who came to him one day, despondent about the death of his wife, whom he loved more than anything in the world.
Frankl asked the man, “What would have happened if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?”
“Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”
“You see,” said Frankl, “such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—but at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.”
The man said nothing. And after a moment shook his hand and left the office.
When we make meaning of our suffering, we may even feel that it’s a dignity to bear it.
When we suffer for the sake of accomplishing a great goal or victory, that suffering gives greater worth to our success.
In economics, the more valuable something is, the more we pay for it. In meaning-making it’s the reverse: the more we pay for something in effort and hardship, the more valuable it tends to become.
How much more did winning the World Series of Baseball in 2016 mean to the Chicago Cubs after 108 years of failure, as compared to the Yankees who won it 27 times in that same period?
Or consider this: If a trim man puts on the tuxedo he wore to his wedding and goes to celebrate his anniversary, he thinks nothing of it. Imagine how much more it means for a man who had to lose 200 pounds to fit into that same tuxedo and appear before his wife like he did on their wedding day.
Notice that fame, money, or power, (perhaps to no one’s surprise) don’t make the cut as sources of meaning. You could argue that these fit in the category of experiencing something amazing. And it’s true that the experience of great fame, power or riches can in some ways be meaningful.
But these things are primarily forms of influence, not meaning. They make an individual worth paying attention to by others, and in one way or another marks them as a notable member of their community. And that does mean something.
Though on their own, these forms of influence can be flimsy sources of personal worth. For one thing, the wheel of fortune can turn over as you sleep and your fame, wealth, and power can be taken from you by forces beyond your control.
Secondly, and more importantly, if you’ve gained your influence from something you’re not actually proud of, or don’t feel is worthwhile—like inheriting a fortune from your parents, winning credit for someone else’s work, or accidentally going viral for a video of you in a cat costume—that influence or attention will feel hollow.
By contrast, achieving great fame, power, or riches through hardship and dedication, by providing great service to others, or in accordance with values you hold dear, can be incredibly meaningful.
All this is just to say: There are many ways to the mountaintop. Many ways to fill your glass with the stuff of worth.
Whether our paths through life will have an ultimate purpose at the climax of eternity, no one knows. And personally, I find it doubtful they will. But I have no doubt the paths we forge through life give us meaning—some paths far more than others.
To paraphrase Carlos Castaneda:
All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. But there are paths with heart and paths without heart. If your path has heart, your journey will be joyous. If it does not, you will curse the days of your life. One path strengthens you, the other weakens you.
Take the path that gives you strength. Take the path that fills your cup. If it overflows, share it with the world.
Friedrich Nietzsche warned us: Don’t get stuck in nihilism. Crossing your arms and proclaiming there’s no meaning in life is no great accomplishment. Ridiculing the meaning others find in life is nothing to be proud of. While there’s no obvious purpose to life, meaning is everywhere around us. And just because our influence in the scheme of the universe is small doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth doing.
In fact, we may be the most meaningful things in the universe because we are the only beings we know of capable of producing and experiencing meaning.
The swirling clouds of Jupiter, the yawning black hole at the center of our galaxy, and all the cold space in between have incalculably more influence on the universe than we do, but they don’t have an iota of meaning on their own.
In the Soviet sci-fi classic Solaris, one character points out that: “Humanity doesn’t want to conquer the cosmos, we want to extend the Earth out to its ends.” And it’s true. What matters most to us in the universe is right here.
Our lives orbit around our mothers, our brothers, our countries, our values, our human victories and our human tragedies. When two hearts fall in love it’s like a nuclear furnace of meaning which shines at the center of our lives and fills them with light and warmth. And even if one day that love goes supernova on us, with the right perspective, the dust of suffering can itself coalesce into new meaning.
Stop asking about the meaning of life. Instead ask, “How can I feel more meaning in life?”
Then go out and fight for something great. Go build something that will outlast you. Fall in love again and again throughout your life—ideally, with the same person. Find a leader worth serving, or a young child to mentor. Find a purpose to suffer for or a purpose for your suffering. Say YES to every challenge of your life and every shiver of your soul.
If you can do these things your whole life through, you will never be lost in this world. In every room of your home, you’ll find meaning living there. You’ll carry it with you out the door and feel its firmness beneath your every step.
You will feel it in the earth, and you will feel it in the sea, and you will feel it in your blood. Your very heart will flash with it, and your cup will overflow with gold.
If you can attain the feeling of life, you’ll never have to ask about the meaning of life.
Because you’ll have it. It will be yours.
(This article is adapted from an episode of Re-Enchantment – a podcast about living secular life with spiritual depth. For more, join the email list or subscribe to the show wherever podcasts are found.)
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.